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A new era of Turkish democracy?

Image credit: U.S. Department of Commerce (Flickr: Creative Commons)

Turkey’s descent into political instability after the failed military coup attempt of 15 July 2016 has been a critical turning point in the democratic history of the country. As a nation once championed as a model for Middle Eastern democracy, the aftermath of the coup has illuminated the volatility of Turkish politics. The fractured state of the political system, which is now in its third state of emergency since the coup, in conjunction with a weakened economy and string of terror attacks has led the government to urge for a more stable political system.

In a recent development, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has set in motion sweeping constitutional reforms to consolidate his rule and veer Turkey towards a more authoritarian style of governance. On 21 January, Turkey’s Parliament approved an 18-article draft bill that intends to expand the scope of presidential powers and restructure the executive of the Turkish political system. The constitutional amendments were initially proposed by Erdoğans’ ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in December.

After being debated in parliament, these changes were recently voted on, and approved by a vote of 339 MPs in favor and 142 against. The outcome of the vote has triggered a nationwide referendum. The referendum date has now been confirmed for 16 April, which means that it will occur whilst Turkey is in a state of emergency. Consequently, one of the driving factors behind the constitutional changes is to legalise the current situation. Under the proposed amendments, the President would be allowed to legally call and renew states of emergency.

The proposed amendments entail drastic changes to the current system. Under the reform package, Erdoğan would accrue further presidential powers to the extent that critics have decried the amendments for potentially enabling a one-man leadership. The position of prime minister would be eradicated, with Erdogan becoming the sole leader with a vice-president. If these changes are successful, Erdogan could potentially lead until 2029 under a new system in which a president sits for five year terms, rather than the current four with a maximum of two terms.

Additionally, the restructuring of the executive will allow for the restoration of Erdoğan’s ties to his political party. There would also be an increase in the number of MPs from 550 to 600. Under the proposed changes, the President would have full ministerial powers, which means that he would be able to choose his cabinet, and dismiss and appoint ministers. The minimum age of a lawmaker would also be reduced from 25 to 18. Ultimately, if the referendum is successful, Erdoğan will become a trifecta leader: he will become head of state, head of government and head of the ruling party. These changes have the potential to alter the Turkish system from one of a parliamentary system to a presidential republic.

The anticipated referendum has ignited a social media battle between the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ camps. Notably, the social media dimension of the referendum has illustrated the polarisation of Turkey’s current political situation. In particular, the ‘no’ camp is relying on social media to campaign against the reform package as the ‘yes’ camp, which is sponsored by the AKP and the right-wing National Movement Party (MHP), is being strongly pushed in politics and the public sphere. There is naturally some concern as to how the referendum campaign will be conducted and whether there will be in fact any space for free speech and debate. As such, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently expressed to Erdoğan that free speech should not be endangered during the campaign.

The Turkish political context is critical to understanding the driving forces behind these changes. Ever since the failed coup attempt, Erdoğan has embarked on a campaign of political repression to eradicate any form of opposition. Thus, it’s been consistently argued that these changes will return the nation to stability after a period of turmoil and insecurity.

These developments consequentially have striking implications for Turkish democracy. Firstly, critics have indicated that these changes will impede on the separation of powers. The independence of the judiciary may be jeopardised, with Erdoğan gaining stronger influence over the judicial branch of government as the executive and judicial branches are drawn closer under the proposed changes. Additionally, there are concerns that the ability to check government will be hindered. However, as Mehmet Ucum, who is the principal judicial consultant to Erdogan, said to Al Jazeera, ‘the separation between the executive and legislative branches is stronger in the proposed system’.

Ultimately, if the referendum campaign is successful, Turkey will enter a new era of government dynamics. These changes would be the most dramatic since the modern Turkish Republic was founded after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The plethora of powers that Erdoğan will accrue under this new model has concerned critics as it will enable him to consolidate his increasingly authoritarian style of ruling. Notably, endangering the democratic system in Turkey is of critical concern to Middle Eastern politics and stability. The precarious geopolitical location of Turkey and its involvement in regional crises places the nation in a tenuous position. The outcome of the anticipated referendum will certainly be one to watch. It will dictate the future of Turkish political dynamics and have significant implications for the nation’s stability in an increasingly turbulent region.

Sarah Barrie is the Middle East and North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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